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Uniting Congregations face waves of change

By Paul Titus

Often during the three days of the biennial Forum of the Uniting Congregations of Aotearoa New Zealand (UCANZ) the dramatic 19th century Japanese woodcut print ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ appeared on the projector screen behind the speaker’s podium.

The image is of two boats tossed by waves in a perilous sea, and it served as a constant reminder that the way forward for Uniting Congregations is not certain at a time when the Partner Churches tend to think and act more denominational than ecumenical.

Nevertheless, the representatives of Co-operating Parishes who attended the Forum were in good heart as they worshipped together, listened to speakers from UCANZ and other

UCANZ Forum 2007 (From top): Candles represent the Partner Churches; Discussion groups were a key part of Forum; Hutt City young people perform a skit; Rev Nio Daniela gives a reflection to Forum; Standing Committee takes the oath.
ecumenical organisations, and discussed practical ways to strengthen their movement.

The Forum gathered at the NZ International Campus in Upper Hutt which provided residential and dining facilities. The Hutt Valley is a CV stronghold, and the Hutt City Uniting Congregations Parish and Upper Hutt Uniting Parish provided reflections and choirs during worship sessions.

Presbyterian minister and host of Sunday morning television programme Rev Chris Nichol gave the keynote talk at Forum and then facilitated discussion later that aimed to provide the UCANZ Standing Committee some practical and achievable objectives to pursue.

Chris explored the situation churches face in contemporary ‘post-modern’ society. He identified four areas of concern that affect Uniting Congregations in NZ – the status of ecumenism; ecclesiology, or what it means to be church in today’s world; being a missionary church; and church structures.

After his talk Forum delegates divided into four groups, each of which discussed one of the four these themes. These groups were required to identify three key issues of relevance for Uniting Congregations under that theme.

The following day delegates again broke into groups, this time with the assignment to come up with a practical, achievable, measurable project that would address one of these themes. UCANZ Standing Committee will consider these projects at its first meeting in March.

The proposal that was considered most important by those at Forum was to improve the effectiveness of Joint Regional Councils (JRCs). A checklist would be sent to each JRC to determine how it functions and those that are not functioning well would be given help to improve.

Another proposals was to replace the biennial Forum with a series of four regional celebrations that would draw local people into the life of UCANZ. A third proposal was to strengthen the UCANZ so it could better act as the ecumenical face of the Partner Churches.

Prior to its biennial Forum the Uniting Congregations of Aotearoa faced a bit of a dilemma – it had no nominations for the chair of its Standing Committee.

In order to achieve more continuity between leaders, the Forum was to consider a proposal to add a vice-chairperson to the Standing Committee but this was not very likely if there was no chair.

The first step the Forum made was to appoint its new Standing Committee. Once they were in place two people offered to act as co-chairs. They are Geoff Donovan from Johnsonville Uniting Church in Wellington and Janet Taege from Malvern Uniting Parish in Canterbury. Geoff was a member of Standing Committee and Janet was co-opted onto Standing Committee so she could serve as co-chair.

Janet says it took a bit of arm twisting to get her on-board because she leads a very busy life but she is happy to take on the role share the burden with Geoff.

“It is important that Standing Committee keep moving forward and maintain the impetus we have gained at Forum. We will take a close look at the proposals that came out of Chris Nichol’s talk,” Janet says.

Geoff says he is keen to work together with the Partner Churches and not against them. “We have two types of CVs. Some formed out of a real desire to get together. Other joined together because that was the only way they could survive. Some of this latter group are in pain and need to work with them.”

While the leadership of Standing Committee was resolved another opening was created when current UCANZ executive officer John Jones announced he is resigning to take up a role with Wellington Presbytery. John believes his departure comes at a good time because UCANZ is looking to make some changes.

“It has been a bit frustrating working through the structures of the Partner Churches to get answers that suit the needs of CVs. This is a time when Partner Churches are struggling over their own identity so they don’t have a lot of time to help the CVs.

“The CVs are a pretty determined lot, however. I don’t see them being reabsorbed into the Partners. There is a lot to work on to strengthen ecumenical structure in some regions,” John says.